WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — After receiving a bounce pass from junior guard Eric Ayala at the top of the arc, sophomore forward Donta Scott used a pump fake tease to throw his defender off and then stormed into the lane. He took off from the free-throw line, leaping into the air at full force to poster a Connecticut defender with a powerful one-handed slam.
Huskie forward Adama Sanogo then scored a layup on the other end, but Maryland men’s basketball wasn’t fazed in the slightest. The bright lights were on, and this time it was Aaron Wiggins’ turn. The junior guard cut into the paint, grabbed a pass from senior Darryl Morsell and burst towards the basket for a slam dunk of his own to extend the Terps’ lead to 13.
Maryland came into Saturday’s game as the lower seed (10) of a first round matchup in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in head coach Mark Turgeon’s tenure, picked by nearly every college basketball expert to falter to the 7-seed Huskies. But the team found its rhythm to play with confidence, allowing it to hold firm against a comeback attempt from Connecticut en route to a 63-54 victory.
“[We] beat a really, really good team, a team that’s been really hot, playing really well with Bouknight healthy,” Turgeon said. “Guys were locked in defensively. Just a great win for us. To be 4-9 in league and now have a win in the NCAA Tournament against a really good team, it’s a great night for Maryland basketball.”
The first round matchup was expected to be a defensive slugfest. Instead, the Terps shot 51.2% from the field and 50% from deep, using a smart shot selection to dismantle the UConn defense. The Huskies’ offense didn’t fair well either, with the pesky Maryland defense forcing its 7-seed opponent into a 32.3% shooting clip, including 30.4% from deep.
The Terps faced glaring concerns early into the contest, however. Connecticut had complete control of the boards from the opening tip, grabbing four consecutive offensive rebounds before draining a triple to take a 3-0 lead. All of the Huskies’ first seven points came on second chance attempts, with the Terps struggling to man the defensive boards.
Ayala allowed the Terps to stay up front despite such struggles. He came out of the gates on fire to score eight of Maryland’s first 10 points, doing so in dazzling fashion without missing a single shot.
The Terps played with hounding defense, only allowing the Huskies to make five of their first 18 shots from the floor, yet they were only up 13-11 at the under-12 timeout due to their continued poor performance on the boards — nine of those points came on second chances for the Huskies.
“Our guys played with great toughness, really defended. We didn’t rebound very well, especially the first 10 minutes, we couldn’t get a rebound,” Turgeon said. “But we got better as the game went on. Our defense got better as the game went on.”
As the first half continued, so did Ayala’s heroic play. He was a man on a mission, not intending on slowing down anytime soon. After UConn took a 19-18 lead with a little under eight minutes left, Ayala drained a deep three with ease off a toss pass from Darryl Morsell to put his team back ahead. The Terps never trailed again from there.
“It’s do or die at this point,” Ayala said. “You’ve got to leave it all out there. Empty the tank. I wasn’t ready to go home today.”
That was the junior guard’s last bucket of the half, as he sat out the last four and a half minutes with two fouls. But as the Terps’ confidence grew, other players started to get into their groove as well.
With a little under seven minutes left, Hakim Hart drove into the paint and fooled his defender by throwing an outlet pass to the right side of the arc, where Scott sunk a three-pointer.
On the next possession, following an ugly rebounding scramble for the ball after a missed UConn shot, Hart again had a crucial pass, kicking the ball out to Wiggins, who drained another triple to give the Terps a 28-19 lead.
The sequence was part of a 10-0 run from Maryland, but the real catalyst of that span was its hounding defense, which forced Connecticut into missing eight straight shots amid a 4:06 scoring drought.
While the Huskies failed get going offensively, its leading scorer in James Bouknight struggled to get on track himself. The Terps blitzed the projected lottery pick every time he got into the paint, with the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in Morsell not making it easy for him on the perimeter either.
UConn’s leading scorer was held to just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting in the first half, as the Huskie offense was stuck in neutral for most of the first 20 minutes of play. The team shot just 23.1% from the field and 33.3% from beyond the arc on the half, as Maryland’s scoring attack looked completely in rhythm, led by a game-high 14 first half points from Ayala to take a 33-22 lead going into the locker room.
The Terps’ 75% mark from the deep was more than Connecticut had allowed in a half all season, with its previous high being 61.5% allowed to Georgetown on March 6.
Ayala’s hot streak picked up as soon as he got back in action to start the second half. He drained consecutive jumpers within the first two minutes of action, extending the Maryland lead to 43-29 before the monstrous dunks from Scott and Wiggins.
The Terps led by as much as 14 points, but the Huskies, who had struggled offensively throughout the matchup thanks to tough defensive play, began to climb their way back into it as the second half continued.
Connecticut went on an 11-3 run across nearly seven minutes to trim Maryland’s lead down to five with just under three minutes left. In prior matchups this season, the Terps had let games slip out of their grasp down the stretch, but their confidence and belief built earlier in the contest allowed them to hold firm for the victory.
Ayala and Morsell widened the gap back to 57-48 with four converted free throws, allowing the Terps to rely on their defense to get them across the finish line.
Three things to know
1. Eric Ayala was electrifying. To start the game, Ayala had eight of the Terps’ first 10 points, but he did not stop there. The guard finished the night with 23 points, shooting 8-for-14 from the field and 3-for-5 from deep, and he also added four rebounds, three steals and an assist. Whenever the Terps needed him most, Ayala provided a spark.
2. The play in the paint was pretty even. Despite UConn owning the size advantage over the Terps, Maryland managed to hold its own in the paint on both ends of the floor. Though the Huskies totaled 18 points in the paint themselves, the Terps put up 24 of their own, including several on some rim-ratting slam dunks.
3. Maryland faces 2-seed Alabama next. With the victory, The Terps are set to play the Crimson Tide in the Round of 32 on Monday. Maryland looks to move on to the Sweet Sixteen after falling just short in the 2019 NCAA Tournament — also at the hands of an SEC team. Alabama, who defeated 15-seed Iona, 68-55, Saturday, presents as a dangerous opponent after winning both the SEC regular season and tournament championships.
“We didn’t even talk about Alabama yet, honestly. Just enjoying this moment right now,” Ayala said. “We worked real hard to get here. And I think Coach and the coaching staff will have us ready to play Alabama when we play them.”